Seeking old trail toward freedom Volunteers search for Underground Railroad in Howard

November 03, 1995|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

As she walked around the two former slave cabins in Elkridge, Paulina Moss rubbed her fingertips over the rotted wood of the pre-Civil War shacks.

"We come from a strong people," said Ms. Moss, who photographed and took notes on the buildings as part of a research project on Howard County's place in the Underground Railroad network for fugitive slaves. "I knew it all along, but this really proves it."

Fascinated by slaves who sought freedom, Ms. Moss, a resident of Columbia's Owen Brown village, is one of nine volunteers brought together in August, by the Columbia-based Howard County Center of African American Culture, to document Underground Railroad stops in the county.

They have examined some former slave quarters in the county and have begun to identify sites that may have been part of the Underground Railroad. Next July, they plan to publish their research as a social history of the fugitive slave network.

"This is a well-preserved county historically, but we're attempting to grab a hold of African-American history before it disappears," said Anthony Cohen of Rockville, the group's paid consultant.

The Underground Railroad wasn't literally a railroad but was a complex and dangerous route that thousands of runaway slaves used to escape north to freedom before the Civil War.

Fugitive slaves had to remain hidden during the day -- sometimes in the homes of abolitionists, other times in the woods -- and travel at night. Along the way, an interracial network of abolitionists provided the men, women and children with food, shelter, clothing, money and transportation.

The volunteers plan to spend most of their free time in the next nine months documenting Howard County's part in the Underground Railroad.

"I'm intrigued that 150 years later, we are still able to find these [stops]," said Julie DeMatters, an Ellicott City resident and Baltimore County librarian. To supplement the project, she will be looking for Underground Railroad stops in nearby sections of Baltimore County.

The Howard project resembles a more formal, 2-year-old effort by the National Park Service. Congress in 1993 authorized the federal department to study how Underground Railroad history could be commemorated and preserved.

The federal study is complete and soon will be forwarded to Congress, said Barbara Tagger, historian for the National Park Service and lead historian for that project.

"The nation needs to recognize that slavery is a key part of our American history," Ms. Tagger of Atlanta said. "As painful as [slavery] is, we must deal with it."

The federal project has documented 375 Underground Railroad sites around the country, she said. Four are in Maryland: two in Baltimore, one in Dorchester County and the other in Washington County.

But the federal study is far from definitive, Ms. Tagger said. Local researchers may be able to document a larger number of sites in their own areas, she said, and federal researchers welcome such efforts.

In August, the local team -- teachers, librarians and writers by day -- divided the county geographically and began their work.

They collected stories from residents, sought homes that served as hiding places, examined culverts where slaves were supposed to have hidden along the Patapsco River and looked for clues to where fugitive slaves may have stopped.

"This is quite a task," said Angela Stevens, a resident of Columbia's Dorsey's Search village and volunteer docent at the Center of African American Culture. The business analyst is looking for stops in Clarksville, Highland and Dayton. "There are enough clues and folklore to suggest that there are plenty of stops in Howard County."

Recently, Ms. Moss and Wylene Burch, director of the culture center, visited the Deep Run Stream and the Thomas Viaduct in Elkridge, where the culverts and crevices are said to have been hiding places along the Underground Railroad.

They saw a pair of slave cabins during a visit to the Furnace Inn restaurant and talked with co-owner Dan Wecker about the inn's history. On the banks of the Patapsco River, the parcel includes the inn, two houses and the two former slave cabins. Two other slave cabins were washed away in a flood years ago, Mr. Wecker said.

Researchers still are uncertain how many Howard County sites they will be able to document.

"Maryland was a slave-holding state, so the Underground Railroad should be here as much, if not more than, other places," said Mr. Cohen, the research group's consultant.

Independent of the federal study, he has documented 24 stops in what he calls his "hardly comprehensive" book, "The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County, Md.: A History and Driving Guide." He is working on a tour of 70 stops in Washington, D.C., and expects to complete it next month.

Mr. Cohen is interested in forming a statewide network "to get the full picture of the underground network in Maryland," he said.

Anyone who has information about Underground Railroad stops in Howard County or wants to participate in the project can call the Howard County Center of African American Culture at

410-715-1921.

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